BLOG - Commuting and its impact on health

This week Dr Laurie Berrie investigates the impact that increased commuting distances in Scotland have on a person's health and well-being and how the Scottish Government can encourage people to take up cycling or walking to actively commute.

Introduction

Commuting is a part of daily life – on average, workers in Scotland spend approximately one hour per day commuting. Over time, commuting distances have increased and so has the use of cars. These changes have important implications on a person's health as well as financial and environmental impacts. Previous research has shown that long-distance commuting is associated with poor psychological well-being. Exposure to air pollution is also part of the commuting process which may lead to adverse health outcomes. Active commuting, such as walking or cycling may lead to multiple benefits to a person's health and well-being as well as being beneficial to the environment by reducing congestion. 

Sadly, the rate of cycling to work is low in Scotland compared to England and many countries in Europe. Only 1.85% of working people aged 16-74 living in the Glasgow City council area cycled to work, whereas in the City of Edinburgh council area this figure was 4.8% (2011 census). By comparison, 62.4% of employed people in Scotland commuted by car at the 2011 census, however, 38.6% of all commutes were less than 5km (https://www.scotlandscensus.gov.uk/census-results/at-a-glance/transport/). For the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow the percentage of commutes less than 5km are 54.4% and 51.8%, respectively. With this low rate, The Scottish Government 2030 Vision for Active Travel, has put active commuting on the Scottish Government policy agenda. They want to see walking or cycling as the most popular choice for shorter everyday journeys. To help encourage people to take up cycling, we first need to understand the patterns of people who already cycle and the barriers to people who would cycle but for some reason choose not to.

Research

We are using the 2011 Scottish Census, focusing on the propensity to cycle to work and the potential benefits to mental health in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Census respondents report the mode of travel they use for the longest part of their journey (Figure 1). The census includes straight-line commuting distances, however, we will use more representative road distances in our research. This has been compiled by a Scottish Government GIS Analyst and National Records of Scotland (Please see previous blog on how road distance to work has been calculated).

 

Figure 1: Distance travelled to work in metres by mode of transport for those aged 16-74 years living in the Glasgow City and City of Edinburgh Council areas at the 2011 census. n = number of people in category. Note the similarity in distances travelled to work by bicycle, driving or being a passenger in a car, and taking a bus, minibus or coach.

In the future

We would like to use data from the 2022 Census to see how active commuting has changed over the last decade. We would particularly like to know whether the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the number of people actively commuting to the workplace.

 

This article was published on 27 Oct 2021

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Dr Laurie Berrie